The United States and the world would discover Martial Arts actor Bruce Lee until 1973 with the release of his first (and only) Hollywood film, "Enter the Dragon", a masterpiece of the Martial Arts genre and arguably the film that started the trend of Kung-Fu films. However, before making "Enter the Dragon", Lee had already participated in three major films in Hong Kong, two of them under the direction of Wei Lo and the third the only film of his where he had complete control under everything, "Meng Long Guojian", the "Way of the Dragon". Better known as "Return of the Dragon" in the U.S. (where it was released as a sequel to "Enter the Dragon"), "Meng Long Guojiang" was Lee's first film as a director, and like his following two final films, a movie where he was able to express not only his physical abilities, but also the philosophy he developed to achieve them.
In "Way of the Dragon", Bruce Lee plays Tang Lung, a young man from Hong Kong who is sent to Rome by his uncle in order to help a family friend, "Uncle" Wang (Chung-Hsin Huang). At his arrival, he is informed that the problem is that the Italian Mafia wants the family's restaurant, and uses violent intimidation to pressure the owner. While at first not everyone is convinced that Tang Lung would be of any help (as he is not used to the city), soon they discover that Tang is in fact a talented Martial Artist. With Tang Lung's help, the Restaurant's waiters manage to defend themselves from the gangsters, but the Mafia Boss is completely decided to get the Restaurant, so he hires a group of Martial Arts experts, including the famous Colt (Chuck Norris) to eliminate Tang Lung.
After proving he was a bankable star, Bruce Lee finally got the opportunity of not only writing, but also directing his own film. Free at last to make his vision of a Martial Arts film come true, Lee builds up a film focused on two very personal themes for him. On one hand, his very own experience as a stranger in a strange land, and the feelings of being like a fish out of the water; and on the other, his ideal of the hero who uses his very own technique to fight against the established disciplines. While the plot is very straight forward, and a bit typical, Lee uses it effectively to showcase his own ideals and philosophies as martial artist, delivering finally an action film with some depth beyond watching the character overcome the enemies.
Borrowing heavily from Spaghetti Westerns (even some score by Morricone is used), Lee creates a magnificent epic set on the beautiful locations of Rome, where his lonely hero Tang Lung arrives as a modern day cowboy to right some wrongs. While of course not an expert filmmaker (it was after all, his first film as a director), Lee shows a great eye for visuals, as the camera becomes an essential part in the creation of the sublimely choreographed fights, and the highly stylish set pieces (again, influenced by Sergio Leone's westerns). "Meng Long Guojiang is definitely the basics for what Lee conceived as a Martial Arts film, and many of what he developed for this movie would become of great influence for future directors of the genre.
Due to his character in "Enter the Dragon", most people remember Bruce Lee's acting as a serious, dark personification of the perfect martial arts warrior, however, "Meng Long Guojiang" is a chance to discover a way different side of Lee's persona, as he allows himself to be as funny and human as skilled in Kung-Fu. "Way of the Dragon" offers insight into Lee as a comedy actor, as Tang Lung's personality (and probably Bruce's real one too) is that of a happy man who enjoys life. The rest of the cast ranges from good to average, with one amazing exception: Ping-Ao Wei. As the treacherous translator Ho, Ping-Ao Wei delivers one of the best comedic performances of his career, and an excellent (and effective) comic relief for the film.
As written above, the cast (mostly the case of the many extras in the film) most of the time doesn't seem up to the challenge of the film, and the awful dubbing done doesn't really help with that. Another truly big problem is that Lee didn't had enough budget to fulfill his vision and in some scenes it really shows. This two problems really hurt the film badly, and while Lee's inexperience behind the camera is quite obvious, it's safe to say that he delivered a great job against the odds. The epic tone of the film and the superb climatic scenes really make up for the notorious flaws the film has, and one gets to wonder how would "Game of Death" may had turned up if Lee had lived enough to complete it.
It's a shame that Lee died so soon and was unable to craft his ultimate Martial Arts film, leaving the world wondering what would he do to top this film (and the reliable sources agree that "Game of Death" was really going to be his best). This flawed masterpiece may not be perfect, but it's monumental when one realizes how influential it became. Sure, "Enter the Dragon" may be the better film of the two, but "Meng Long Guojiang" is the film that shows us how Lee really was, and what he really believed in. In more than one sense, "Meng Long Guojiang" is truly, the real Way of the Dragon. 8/10